Woodward Shakespeare Festival is taking a novel approach to its summer season by presenting two related plays. First up was “Hamlet” in June. And now, to close out the season, the company is presenting Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which takes two minor characters from “Hamlet” and expands upon their fate in an absurdist way.
We caught up with director Jacob Sherwood, a Fresno State theater major, to talk about the production.
Q: Let’s start off by talking a little about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’re minor (but memorable) characters in “Hamlet,” and playwright Tom Stoppard decided to flesh out their characters in an unexpected way. Tell us how.
A: First and foremost, they are now in the spotlight! These minor and almost background characters are now center stage and pivotal to the plot. Their quips and quibbles are now the main focus of the text rather than some comedic relief in the otherwise heavy play “Hamlet.”
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Q: This isn’t the easiest play for which to describe the plot, but give it a try.
A: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. They died at the end of the play “Hamlet” and yet the question is asked, what if that isn’t the end? Here we see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss heavy topics and deep philosophies as they travel, for reasons they can’t seem to grasp. Along the journey they meet up with a group of Tragedians, actors, who help guide these two on their journey. We also meet key characters from “Hamlet” as we relive the events leading up to their deaths.
Q: Stoppard was influenced by such absurdist playwrights as Beckett and Godot. How is this manifested in the play?
A: Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” is quite literally two men standing there waiting for someone who never comes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern similarly are on stage the entire show, trying to figure out where to go next. Even when they try to leave the stage they are stopped by one of the characters from “Hamlet” and the scene will change around them rather than them leaving to go somewhere new.
Q: The two characters have a lot of similarities between them. (They aren’t very bright, for one thing.) Are there differences?
A: Yes and no. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are so similar that not only do other people get them confused, but even the characters themselves aren’t sure which is which. At the same time they rotate between being serious and being the fool and in those moments they are different, only to then switch roles, thus adding to their own confusion.
Q: This show comes on the heels of Woodward Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Did you and “Hamlet” director Broderic Beard compare notes on casting, philosophy, etc., before the season began?
A: Not really; any casting similarities were coincidental. He and I just happened to like the same people for the same roles. As for philosophy for anything else connecting the two shows, no we did not coordinate. I did, however, watch his show and staged certain similarities so as to make a connection between the two shows as a perk for anyone who came and saw both shows.
Q: Existentialist theater can be a tough sell no matter the venue, but I imagine it’ll be even more of a challenge in the wide-open, non-intimate space of an outdoor stage. How are you handling that?
A: To the best of our abilities. There are certain things we just can’t help. There will be ambient noise of the outdoors, cars that pass by and feel like honking at us, and of course people who think it’s funny to shout or make noise in an attempt to distract either the actors or the audience. With that being said, I use the space we have to keep the audience engaged, such as fast movements and running about the stage, I use slapstick and make references to commedia dell’arte, and of course a few Shakespearean jokes you would expect to see were you watching one of his comedies.
Q: I’m intrigued by exploring the ways that a minor character in a play is affected by the actions of the major characters. In “Hamlet,” for example, we often think of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, but it’s easy to forget that Hamlet has a huge impact on the other characters as well. Has “Rosencrantz” made you look at minor characters in other plays any differently?
A: Absolutely, in acting classes they always teach us to look at the relationship your character has with EVERY character in the play, but so often we only focus on the ones we have a lot of interactions with. This show is all about how these two minor characters are heavily impacted by the bigger ones and not only Hamlet, but Claudius and Gertrude also heavily impact them. We also get a chance to see how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel about these characters including Polonius and Ophelia, who they don’t get to interact with them in “Hamlet.”
Q: There’s a lot to unpack, philosophically speaking, in Stoppard’s play. Is there a theme or moment that you find yourself particularly drawn to?
A: Death. The entire show revolves around the concept of death and our relationship with death. The shows focuses on how we all must suffer death no matter who we are or where we come from, what is the point to our deaths if there are any to begin with, what happens after death if anything at all, and of course our personal feelings with and about death. Hidden amongst all the comedy and absurdism, a very serious discussion is occurring, one we all have at one point or another in our lives.
Q: Would you trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on a mission of your own? (Or, to put it another way, was Shakespeare unfair to them?)
A: No, I don’t think he was unfair to them. Their deaths are important in “Hamlet” because it shows collateral damage caused by Hamlet’s actions. Are they the most competent of people? No. I wouldn’t necessarily trust them with something important, but I think they would be really cool friends to have!
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Two things really. First, this production will begin with a 30-minute pre-show starting at 7:30 at the park, it will be a group of street performances within the audience area full of fun and you’re sure to catch something different every night! Secondly, I know that a play like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” can seem intimidating to all those unfamiliar with it, but within this show are two very lovable characters that we can all relate to in one way or another.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 10
- Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park
- www.woodwardshakespeare.org, 559-927-3485.
- General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.